A New Look For Craft Beer

Unfiltered by | May 2014 | Issue #88

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

For all of its popularity, craft beer largely lacks any sense of style. Content with the relative comforts of jeans, beards and bad hop puns, the industry really hasn’t sought to enrich and deepen its sense of public identity. And it’s starting to take a beating for its reluctance toward maturation.

In a March New York Times Magazine article, noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I ♥ NY campaign and the Brooklyn Brewery’s signature logo, critiqued a handful of craft beer can and bottle designs. While perhaps a little uncharitable at times, including his thoughts that the Dogfish 90 Minute IPA logo “looks lumpy, like food that has gone bad,” his overall point is well taken: Craft beer design often looks farcical and not carefully considered.

As the craft brewing industry continues to grow, its design approach should become more focused, allowing it to explore new audiences and markets. Those brewers who sense untapped, broader opportunities will position themselves to court a more refined audience. While I’m not suggesting the craft beer industry lose its sense of fun, it is perhaps time that the design equivalent of fart jokes steps aside for a more thoughtful sensibility.

Beyond Glaser’s critique of bottle and can design, consider the next most obvious statement of a brewery’s design presence: the tap handle. At its core, a tap handle serves a function: to facilitate the pouring of beer. At some point, tap handles became a branding opportunity and are now designed to stand out, requiring some measure of differentiation. As presently employed, however, most tap handles are tacky, obtrusive and unsightly. Whether fashioned to look like hockey sticks or adorned with plastic, glued-on baubles, the effect of dozens of handles jammed together is a cacophonic clusterfuck of discombobulated shapes, sizes, themes and colors. Tall tap handles are awkward and block views, often separating the bartender from his customer. Moreover, they’re wasteful. In an era with little brand loyalty and many seasonals and one-offs, most tap handles quickly get discarded in a bar manager’s desk drawer and collect dust. Not to mention that, while they do serve the purpose of informing the public what beers an establishment offers on tap, there is an invention better suited to this task: the menu.

In the early days of craft beer, lining your bar or taproom with empty bottles or old tap handles as trophies may have passed as keen design skill. In a new era, where design aesthetics have changed so dramatically, a new look is required for all dynamics of craft beer. As craft beer grows, it should mature. And just as one’s personal style evolves away from muscle car posters and Monet prints, so must the industry re-envision its own image. While maintaining its accessibility and playful spirit, it’s time for craft brewers to think: Would this beer name, bottle, can or tap handle look out of place in a nice restaurant? Or is it part of an ill-conceived and juvenile effort? It’s time to cast off hop puns, discard cartoonish beer names, abandon tacky tap handles and evolve beyond the rec room aesthetic. Craft beer deserves a makeover.